“Fight for Your Right to Party?”: The Politics of Hip Hop’s “Funky Ass Jews”

Posted on August 17, 2012

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*Originally posted on my Facebook page June 12, 2012

In some ways, the Beastie Boys’ impact on hip hop culture, and their place in the genre’s history, is rather obvious. One only needs to observe their names and look at their color of their skin. Adam Horowitz (Ad Rock), Mike Diamond (Mike D), and Adam Yauch (MCA) comprised hip hop’s first Jewish (or “white” depending upon who you ask) hip hop group. The self-styled punk rock group began rapping as a joke after releasing their unheralded debut EP, Polly Wog Stew” in 1982. The Beastie Boys were the first non-black rap group to sign with Russell Simmons’s and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam Recordings and among the first hip hop artists to earn a platinum plaque with their 1986 classic debut album, Licensed to Ill. Ad Rock, Mike D, and MCA established themselves early on as the rebellious trio rapping who rapped about partying, picking up women, and engaging in mischievous activities typical for any young teenage male. Punk rock-tinged party anthems like “Fight for Your Right” and the obnoxious frat boy humor found in “Hey Ladies” allowed the Beastie Boys to pave their own lane in an overwhelmingly black genre. Yet, amongst the various recollections of the group’s legacy accompanying MCA’s passing this past May, one misses the group’s place within hip hop’s history and it’s contemporary culture as a politically aware and socially conscious collective. Ironically, most remember the Beasties as a fun-loving group who always exhibited their slapstick humor through their lyrics, rapped about having fun, constructed genre-bending soundscapes, often while drawing upon some of the more problematic aspects of hip hop culture, mainly its misogyny.

My purpose is not to reminisce over the usual Beastie Boys hits singles like “Fight for Your Right,” “Paul Revere,” and “Sabotage.” Nor will I spend a lot of time discussing the recording of their albums, especially their seminal 1989 album, Paul’s Boutique. True, Paul’s Boutique, along with De La Soul’s 3 Feet and Rising (1989), A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm(1990), and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1990) helped set a new standard for the controversial sample-based hip hop albums of the late-1980s and early-1990s. I will discuss the political dimensions of their music, and recall their 2004 album, To the Five Burroughs, an album that observers often overlook.

 

 

The Beastie Boys’s Place in Hip Hop History

Hip hop artists and aficionados do not often point to punk rock as one of the culture’s early influences. Gil Scott Heron’s and the Lost Poets’ politically-charged spoken word poetry usually come to mind when trying to locate the roots of rapping. We may point to the roots of the hip hop sound in the disco (see the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which samples Chic’s “Good Times”) and breakbeat loops that the early DJs engineered using record players, portable stereos/boomboxes, and home stereos (to make pause tapes).[1] Yet, the Beastie Boys illustrate how hip hop and punk rock emerged in the same spatial, historical, and political context—a context where some neighborhoods in New York City, and throughout countless urban spaces in the U.S., suffered from federal, state, and city disinvestment, deindustrialization, and criminal activity. Ad Rock, MCA, and Mike D introduced themselves as a hardcore punk rock band named the Beastie Boys in 1981, several years since early NYC punk rockers started their movement in lower Manhattan, four years after the city’s famed blackout and fires hallowed out the Bronx and six years after the city’s and state’s leaders imposed austerity on its poorer citizens and the city’s workers in their efforts to address NYC’s fiscal crises. The combination of unfortunate events and developments—the fires and disinvestment—helped reduce certain areas of New York City to what rapper Melle Mel metaphorically referred to as the “jungle” in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 hit, “The Message.”[2]

Some of us are also slow to acknowledge hip hop’s multiethnic origins. Black and brown hip hop fans’ desire to police what they perceive as the culture’s racial and ethnic boundaries is often understandable considering the history of musical and cultural appropriation by dominant racial and financial groups in the U.S.[3] Yet, the Beastie Boys early presence demonstrates hip hop’s rather multiethnic roots. While some observers and activists like Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. may have wondered about the deteriorating relationship between the city’s black and Jewish leaders during the 1970s and 1980s, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin decided to sign hip hop’s first Jewish group to hip hop’s first record label, Def Jam and Run-DMC wrote the Beastie Boys’s first hit song off their first album,Licensed to Ill, the thumping and 808-bass heavy, “Slow and Low.”[4]

This is not to say that the Beastie Boys’s presence within hip hop and the broader popular culture was not controversial. It is hard to consider the Beastie Boys producing one of the first platinum selling hip hop albums a coincidence since white Americans, especially young white men, have historically represented the genre’s biggest consumers. Yet, the Beastie Boys’s ability to appeal to urban and suburban whites, tap into rock radio, and tour with pop stars like Madonna earlier in their career exhibits the type of privilege that other black rap artists were unable to attain and enjoy in the genre’s formative stages (or at least until Run DMC recorded their rock-rap crossover hit with Aerosmith). Many black artists had to demonstrate that hip hop was not merely a passing fad.

And despite the early collaboration between the Beastie Boys and Run DMC, the Beastie Boys served as fodder for some public figures early in their career. Tipper Gore took shots at them on The Oprah Winfrey Show for their vulgar and misogynistic lyrics.[5] Yet, then, as in now with critics of contemporary hip hop culture, many of their critiques only got it half right—hip hop culture is not just a subculture, but a reflection of the larger culture. Thus, the subculture will reflect the dominant culture’s extreme focus on all forms of excess—notably material and sexual—two crucial elements often pushing and sustaining our contemporary corporate and market-driven popular culture.  Tracks from the Beastie Boys’s first two albums like “Hey Ladies” merely illustrated this point. However, by the time they recorded and released Ill Communication in 1994, they repudiated such misogynist lyricism and began to craft more socially conscious music in their signature old-school and lighthearted style.[6]

 

“To the Five Burroughs”:  The Culmination of the Beastie Boys’ Politics

Of course, I cannot locate the source of Beastie Boys’s political consciousness. But one would be mistaken to trace the origins of Beastie Boys’s politics in their 2004 album, To the Five Burroughs. Rapper MCA started practicing Buddhism in during the early 1990s and involved himself in the campaign against Chinese rule of Tibet. He founded the Milarepa Fund in 1994, which spearheaded the Tibetan Freedom Concert series. The Beastie Boys also participated in a coalition of musicians, which included Tom Petty, Alanis Morrisette, and Dave Matthews Band. Calling themselves the New Power Project, they assembled to oppose President George W. Bush’s proposal to open 2,000 acres of land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling in his 2001 energy policy. Their music also began to take a political turn in the 1990s.[7] The Beastie Boys publicly repudiated their earlier homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. One oft-cited lyric is MCA’s apology on their excellent single from Ill Communication, “Sure Shot”:

 “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/ The disrespect to women has got to be through/ To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends/ I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”[8]

While it is true that plenty of male hip hop artists have recording songs professing their admiration and respect for women, the Beastie Boys publicly apologized for their past transgressions and remained consistent by not performing said material and recording other songs speaking out against sexism.

To the Five Burroughs is classic Beastie Boys. Most of the songs are very up tempo. It also makes for a nice breakdancing record since they crafted much of the record with breakbeats and breakdance-friendly loops. Yet, it’s actually their most socially conscious album. To the Five Burroughs is a product of the Bush era. The self-proclaimed “funky ass Jews” take a stand against preemptive war on “Right, Right, Now, Now” and call for President George W. Bush’s impeachment on “Time to Build.” They speak out against police brutality and urge listeners to “step outside the cone of silence” and “change the system” on “We Got The…” And, yet with all of their criticism, and this is one of the reasons why I’ve grown to really appreciate the Beastie Boys, they transformed themselves from the immature partiers to partiers who sought to use their music to speak some truth to power. While President Bush instructed us to shop and members of his administration aimed to sow hatred needed to generate popular support for their war on terror, the Beastie Boys used their music to build bridges across cultural, racial, and ethnic divides in a post-9/11 New York City and America. Their effort to appeal to some sense of common humanity is evident in their chorus in “An Open Letter to NYC”:  “Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten/ From the Battery to the top of Manhattan/ Asian, Middle-Eastern, and Latin/ Black, White, New York, you make it happen.” They conclude their last verse:

“Since 9/11, we’re still livin’/  And Lovin’ life we’ve been given/ Ain’t nothing gonna take that away from us/ Were lookin’ pretty and gritty cause in the city we trust/ Dear New York, I know a lot has changed/ Two towers down, but you’re still in the game/ Home to the many, rejecting no one/ Accepting peoples of all places, wherever they’re from.”

True, it takes more than music to build racial and ethnic coalitions in New York City and the U.S., but the Beastie Boys’s message represented an alternative response to the trauma and tragedy.

 

Conclusion

I first heard of MCA’s condition a few years ago because the Beastie Boys announced that they suspended recording their latest offering, Hot Sauce Committee. So, of course I was extremely happy to learn of MCA’s initial recovery. Upon MCA’s recovery, the Beastie Boys announced plans to re-record the album and title it “Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2.” Little did I know that Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2 would be their last effort as a trio. Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2 is like most of their albums—an eclectic mix of jazz and funky tunes, pure hip hop songs, catchy party tracks and social commentary. It really reflects a more mature throwback to the Beastie Boys in their License to Ill glory. Their lead single and video, “Make Some Noise,” is an illustration of the Beastie Boys coming full circle as the lyrical content recalls the playfulness of their early days. The video also serves as parody of their early days as Elijiah Wood, Danny McBride, and Seth Rogen, who play the Beastie Boys in the video, wreak havoc in New York City’s streets. If it turns out that Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2 is the Beastie Boys’s last effort, they went out in a dignified manner while staying true to their origins.

When I think of the memory of MCA and Beastie Boys’s legacy, I want to remember their unique contribution to hip hop culture. But I hope we keep in mind that there was a point in their careers where they reflected some negative aspects of hip hop and American culture. Yet, of course, they should remind us that hip hop artists can fulfill one of the promises of hip hop culture—the ability to use an art form to simultaneously provide the soundtrack for all of our lives and to confront injustice. I also think of the Beastie Boys using their art to try to address and correct personal mistakes. When I think of the Beastie Boys’s legacy, I do not just think of my favorite songs like “Paul Revere,” “Get It Together,” or “Puttin’ Shame in Your Game,” nor do I reflect on how Paul’s Boutique is one of the most creative hip hop albums produced during its time. I sometimes recall the humanist impulse contained in the lyrics of “Alive.” I also appreciate their post-9/11 message to New Yorkers and hip hop fans not accept the imperialism and empire-building of the Bush administration. With To the Five Burroughs, the Beastie Boys deployed their humor, political commentary, and playfulness over breakbeats and light soundscapes to combat the fear that we often associated with the Bush administration. I hope one does not just reminisce about the first time one heard “Fight for Your Right,” especially since they produced music that pushed their listeners to fight for their right to take a stand, to love life, and to party.

 

Endnotes:

[1] A pause tape is a tape containing recordings of particular breaks in songs. One makes a breakbeat by recording the break, pausing it, starting the break over, and recording the break again. One repeats this process until one has “created” a few minutes of the breakbeat.

[2] One of these areas was the infamous South Bronx where President Jimmy Carter took his tour of the blighted area in 1977 and where artists like KRS One and scholars cite as the birthplace of hip hop. See Jeff Chang’s and Miriam Goldberg’s discussion of the development of punk and hip hop in the context of NYC’s urban crisis. Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop:  A History of the Hip Hop Generation (New York:  Picador Press, 2005); Miriam Goldberg, Branding New York:  How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World (New York:  Routledge, 2008).

[3] Pop culture analysts and public figures often emphasized the blackness of hip hop. Of course, many pop cultural analysts did so in a more positive fashion than some public figures.

[4] “Rapper Who Conquered Music World in ‘80s with Beastie Boys,” New York Times, May 5 2012. For discussions of Black-Jewish relations during the 1980s see, “Vernon Jordan Calls for the Rebuilding of Black-Jewish Ties,” New York Times, June 12, 1984; “Black and Jewish Leaders Call for New Harmony,”New York Times, June 26, 1985.

[5] “Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch:  From Political Villain to Political Shout Out,” Talking Points Memo, accessed June 10, 2012, http://2012.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/05/adam-yauch-beastie-boys-political-tributes.php.

[6] Much of their early recordings contained homophobic lyrics, as well. They also publicly repudiated these songs in the late-1990s. Ad Rock penned a letter to Time Out New York in 1999 apologizing for their misogynistic and homophobic lyrics.

[7] “Rock Against Bush:  Beasties, Dave Matthews, Moby Fight Energy Plan,” Rolling Stone 877, September 13, 2001.

[8] Feminist scholar and blogger, Jessica Valenti offers a more substantial overview of MCA’s feminist politics. See the article published on The Nation’s website after MCA’s passing, “MCA’s Feminist Legacy.”

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Posted in: Archives, Hip Hop, History